‘Bread and circuses’—panem et circenses in Latin—refers to the practice of appeasing people by providing them with creature comforts like food and entertainment with the aim of winning their acclaim and (political) support. Rrather than trying to educate the public about why they were the better candidate, ancient Romans running for political office were known to hold public banquets, put on gladiatorial games, and otherwise appeal to the lower, ‘baser’ desires of the populace, to win elections.
Yes, it sounds familiar, though maybe it’s pizza and free tickets to Yankees games that are used today instead.
And it’s not only politicians who are at such practices. Colleges and universities in the US are also seeking to appeal to prospective students’ wishes for the likes of climbing walls and cafeterias offering a food court’s array of dining options.
Education vs. Student Services
A recent New York Times article noted that, according to a study of government data, American colleges and universities are spending a ‘declining share’ of their budgets on instruction—on educating their students—and more on administration, recreational facilities and student services (intramural sports, career counseling centers, financial aid offices, student centers, and so forth). The report, ‘Trends in College Spending 1998-2008,’ was conducted by a Washington, D.C., non-profit, the Delta Cost Project, which advocates for greater scrutiny of college costs to keep higher education affordable for all Americans.
Notes the New York Times article:
“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” said Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”
On average, spending on instruction increased 22 percent over the decade at private research universities, about the same as tuition, but 36 percent for student services and 36 percent for institutional support, a category that includes general administration, legal services and public relations, the study said.
Spending on services spending has not only risen at private institutions, but also at public research institutions to the tune of 20 percent over the decade; spending on instruction has increased by 10 percent. At community colleges, spending on students services has increased by 9.5 percent, and only 3.4 percent for instruction.
The Consumerization of the American University?
It’s been said that American universities have become increasingly consumer-oriented. As schools vie for enrollments, it is not—it seems—the quality of the education and of teaching and the expertise and scholarship of professors that draws in students, but the quality of said student services.
Perhaps it comes down to a question of what do we want colleges and universities to provide for students: The education and preparation they need to get a job and to prepare then for the rest of their lives, or just what they think (or might think) they want, ‘facilities’ and ‘services’ and, too, bread and circuses?
(Not that they may end up knowing what ‘bread and circuses,’ much less panem et circenses, means.)
(But do they need to know?)
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Photo by Berlin13407.
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